The Business Press: Basic beginnings

IE Women’s Business center focuses on teaching, mentoring programs

04:47 PM PDT on Thursday, May 20, 2010

By CHRIS H. SIEROTY
Contributing Writer

If you didn’t know where to look, you could easily drive by the Inland Empire Women’s Business Center.

Situated in a nondescript office building within one of several office parks along East Airport Drive in San Bernardino, the center offers a number of programs and services to meet the needs of women business owners or those looking to go into business for themselves in Inland Southern California.

“Our mission is to council, teach and inspire women-owned business owners at every stage of developing or operating their business,” said Nicole Kinney, director of the center. “We do that through our low-cost business training and our mentoring program.”

Those programs focus on general business and management issues, business startup, gaining access to capital and federal contract issues. She said these days the center’s clients fall into two categories: those who are unemployed and “seeking an opportunity through entrepreneurship,” or those who have their businesses up and running and need additional guidance.

Kinney, who was named IEWBC’s director in October, said the vast majority of programs or workshops offered are free, while other classes range in cost from $15 to $125.

“Our three-part QuickBooks training session is our most expensive class, costing $125,” she said.

For those thinking about starting their own business, the center offers a starting your own business workshop one Saturday a month in San Bernardino and one Wednesday a month in Corona.

“It’s a free workshop that gives them the nuts and bolts about getting their business started,” Kinney said in an interview. “It includes sources and criteria for financing, business plan writing and a class about permits and legal help.”

But she cautioned that starting a business isn’t for everyone and figured that almost half of those who attend drop out after the first class and didn’t have any further association with the center.

“Some people say it’s too much work,” she said. “That’s a success. You don’t want to see someone invest their life savings into something they are going to get tired of or don’t have the time for. Running your own business is not for everyone.”

Kinney said many budding entrepreneurs are there to get help with picking a “legal structure” for their business. For example, a majority of participants choose to set up their business as a sole proprietor for a number of reasons, including the low upfront investment, she said.

The ABC’s of starting your own business course also goes over the 5 C’s of credit. The five key elements a borrower should have to obtain credit are: character, capacity (sufficient cash flow to service the obligation), capital (net worth), collateral (assets to secure the debt), and conditions (of the borrower and the overall economy).

“We talk a lot about credit, because not a lot of people have a strong grasp about credit,” she said. “They need to know what a good credit score is and if they don’t have good credit the steps they can take to improve it.”

The ABC’s course also offers an analysis of each participant’s business plan. Kinney explained that it was crucial to make sure “they weren’t getting into a business that’s declining” and that their business idea was feasible.

“It’s not our responsibility just to tell them its a bad idea, but it’s our responsibility to explain to them how their idea isn’t going to work,” she said.

She said about 20 percent of the business plans are rejected. Other business plans, she explained have to be reworked before a client’s idea can be financially feasible.

“Most people’s business plans focus on the goal,” she said. “They want to open a restaurant, but they don’t look at it as something they can do in phases. They can begin by renting space in a shared kitchen and open a catering business. It’s less overhead and they can build up their cash flow and eventually have enough assets to open. So part of what we do is break down that larger goal into manageable pieces.”

Founded in September 2003, the IEWBC, which is part of the The Inland Empire Center for Entrepreneurship at Cal State San Bernardino, has continued to change they way it does business as business conditions in Inland Southern California have changed. Today, most of the business plans presented to its staff are for home-based or online businesses rather than for traditional bricks-and-motar businesses, she said.

“As the nature of business changes, we have to be able to adapt to that,” Kinney said. “We now have a social networking presence. We have a Facebook fan page, and we use Twitter because that’s what our clients are doing. The biggest thing social networking can do is create awareness. If our clients are online creating awareness about their business, we should be doing the same thing.”

The IEWBC received $115,000 in federal funding for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 15. The rest of its estimated $260,000 budget was funded by local municipalities and several large financial institutions.

“We’ve had to do more with less this year,” Kinney said. “We do receive some private donations through our website. We are the opposite of a business. We get our money upfront and we produce the results in order to have that funding renewed for another year.”

Despite the ongoing struggles to raise money, Kinney stressed the center had achieved its ultimate goal over the past seven years of creating or retaining jobs in the Inland Empire. Since its creation, the IEWBC has created or retained 453 jobs with an economic impact of $8.55 million within the two-county region, according to figures complied by the center.

“We have plenty of clients,” she said. “The challenge is to stay on top of the trends … and the other things our clients need. I think we are doing a pretty good job. We help everyone and anyone who knocks on the door.”

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